Monday, June 6, 2011

The Illusion of Embarrassment

Today I've decided to share one of my most embarrassing moments with you. I know! Aren't you lucky? It's probably one of the most-asked questions of all time, but I promise you mine comes with an interesting twist.

It was my senior year in high school. After school, I headed for my locker like usual. I think I needed some books for homework, something like that. I traipsed through the long hallway, ready to get home. I opened my locker and grabbed my book. I looked over my stuff to make sure I had everything, and then I shut my locker. Except I forgot one thing—to take my head out first.

Yes, I shut my head in my locker.

Not softly, either! I SLAMMED my head in my locker. It hurt—that eye-stinging hurt. I shut it right on my temples, and the pain radiated through my skull like sound through a tuning fork. Talk about mortifying. Who forgets to take their head out before shutting their locker? I could not have been more embarrassed. But here's where it gets weird:

It was after midnight; I just finished painting the stage for a show.

The halls were completely, utterly empty.

No one saw.

Yet I was still embarrassed. Not because people laughed at me, or even because anyone saw. It was all me—all in my slightly bruised head. I didn't really think much about it at the time, but looking back I find this event rather interesting. I mean, I was terrified that someone would find out. I worried about the security cameras capturing my clumsiness. And this was before YouTube exploded! I worried someone would ask about the bruise on the side of my face, tried to cover it up with makeup, wore my hair differently to hide it until faded. As if it was this huge, scandalous secret!

Now? I mostly just laugh at myself, but today I've been thinking a lot about this thing we call "embarrassment." As this incident so clearly shows, this feeling comes from us. No one made me feel embarrassed. I chose to be embarrassed, and I chose it based on how I thought other people would think of me if they knew.

Then I started thinking about the others things I'm embarrassed about. Not the silly head-slamming-in-locker moments, but the bigger things. Like how we don't have very much money. Or how my publishing journey has been so long and fraught with obstacles. Or even how I feel about my appearance. I realized my embarrassment came down to the same thing on that late night—I'm worrying about what other people will think.

The funny thing is, for a long time I thought that if I avoided "embarrassing" things then I wouldn't look or feel like a fool. But even if I hid "embarrassing" things about myself, I still felt like a fool or a phony or whatever. That's not the way to get rid of those feelings. In fact, it only breeds them, until there is so much you feel embarrassed about you can hardly make a move without worrying what someone will think.

No, the only way to get rid of embarrassment comes from inside. Because in reality, when you feel that way it's not so much that others think you're stupid or klutzy or unimportant—that's how you feel about yourself, and you're scared that everyone else knows. But no one else really cares, and even if they do it doesn't matter as much as how you feel about yourself.

Archaically, the word "embarrass" meant something slightly different. It meant to hamper or impede, to make difficult or intricate, to complicate. I find this definition fascinating, because in a way that is just what embarrassment is even now. It's allowing your insecurities to get in the way. It's letting yourself be impeded. It's making something more difficult than it needs to be.

I mean, so what if I shut my head in my locker? I made the whole thing so much more embarrassing (i.e. difficult and complicated) than it had to be. I let my insecurities take over.

I wish I could say I don't do that anymore, but I do sometimes. And every time I do I look back and shake my head at myself, because all my worries about what others would think never pan out. Most people never even notice. Lately, it's been one of my goals to stop being embarrassed, to stop getting in my own way. Because no one can make me feel embarrassed but myself.


  1. I so needed to read this this week! I had the biggest (proverbial) head-desk moment late last week and I have been so scared and embarrassed to tell anyone! The people I did tell gasped, making me feel even worse than I already did! I am SO hoping I can shake my head and laugh at myself someday soon!! :)

  2. Great thoughts that even at my age I can still appreciate and use! Thanks for the reminder to not impede myself and worry too much about what i think others are thinking about me. You know how I can worry. . . lol.

  3. I'm a bit clumsy and these things happen to me all the time! I'm learning to deal with the shame, but idiotic stuff I did years ago can still bring a blush to my cheeks. Once I tried to gracefully jump over a desk and ended up on the floor tangled up in four different desks while everyone stared at me in shock. :/ Oooh, there was also the time I was showing off on my razor and fell face-first onto the cement in front of the entire theater department.

  4. You're very right. I haven't even told my own family that I'm attempting to get published, yet I let two total strangers from the blogosphere read and critique my work (one of whom I met through your classifieds- thank you!). I think if I fail, it's easier to fail in front of strangers. Here I'm just another face in the crowd. It's bad enough that my family knows ALL about my struggles with infertility, and everyone keeps asking "Anything yet?" and then giving me these pitying looks when the answer is no. I don't want the same looks when they ask about my (as yet) non-existent writing career... Whew, sorry to babble! Excellent post, though!

  5. I tend to get way too embarrassed about small things. Even leaving a comment on someone's blog makes me feel ridiculously embarrassed and insecure. It's silly and never worth the amount of agonizing I put myself through. Anyway, I really like this post. :)

  6. When I was younger I used to get embarrassed so easy. Someone could just look at me and I'd get embarrassed, but now...let's just say I've toughened up a LOT. Great post and thanks for sharing!

    Just had to share....
    word verification: vagiside

  7. I once gave myself a concussion attempting to get into my car. It was fun explaining over and over to the people at the hospital that no, there were no other drivers and no, the car wasn't in motion and, no, I didn't think it fell under my auto insurance. I just lost my balance and slammed the side of my head against the car frame...

  8. Worrying about what other people will think is a common problem that I think we all struggle with. If it makes you feel any better, I shut my hand in a car door. Like all the way closed and stuck... in front of all of my friends.

    Not as easy to accomplish as you might think. I broke 3 fingers. But now it makes for a funny story.

  9. I think that's a really interesting point, that you can be embarrassed about something no one will see. Afraid of the "I saw that" people always utter after you do something stupid.

  10. Oh, that sounds so painful - I'm sorry! I have a tendency to bump my head on things. Like, a lot. I also tripped over our dog gate once, only I fell right on top of it! Completely smashed it. Luckily, I was the only one home, so no one saw. But I still had to explain what happened to it afterward :-/

    I think this all goes back to ultimately, we're much harder on ourselves than anyone else could be. I just tell myself that everyone else is also too self-conscious to notice what a complete dork I am!

  11. What a wonderful post! This is something I need to work on, because I am like you in that manner.

    Oh, and if it makes you feel better - when she was in high school, my older sister went to my youngest sister's elementary school volley ball game. After the game, she got in my parents' Jeep, but then saw someone she knew. So she leaned out of the Jeep...but still closed the door. On her head. You're not alone! And a lot of people saw her do it. :)

  12. "that's how you feel about yourself, and you're scared that everyone else knows."

    Whoa. That's really insightful, and instinctively I think I got that before, but now I have it spelled out. Thank you!

    When I skipped 4th grade, I lost all my friends, and I went from being the smart popular girl to that weirdo that nobody knew. Thank god there was another weirdo, Aisha, who quickly took me in. We became friends quickly, and she introduced me to a lot of great things (Spice Girls, Absolutely Fabulous, writing on your shoes, etc.). But most importantly, she was never embarrassed about being "weird." She was PROUD of dancing to a different tune. And if someone laughed at something she did, SHE LAUGHED TOO.

    Yeah, skipping a grade turned out to be good for me, and I don't mean academically.

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  14. Being unattached to what others think is a tough one. Embarrassment can kill a good book in progress. Staying unattached is essential when first creating.

  15. Great post, Natalie! :) It reminded me of this quote I recently read: "The humble cannot be embarrassed. When you start to feel embarrassed, it is because you are beginning to move in pride." (Which was kinda like "ouch", but a good ouch, for me!) :)

  16. I can laugh off the clumsy things I do, but for some reason, I get hung up on conversations that I have that I think haven't gone well. I will beat myself up for days for saying something that I shouldn't have, or not being more articulate.